I moved to San Francisco in 1998 from South Africa and found a city with an amazing culinary culture and a rich drinking history. The Bay Area is now also blessed with an exceptional selection of watering holes.
No matter if you’re looking for a fancy hotel bar, a tiki haven or a craft-cocktail den, we have it. That’s not to mention our fair share of lovely dives.
Picking my top 16 spots was, I can assure you, not an easy task. While I have many more favorites, I feel like the following establishments will give you a great sense of our town. Cheers!
Thad Vogler has worked at many of the area’s finest bars and created countless cocktail lists. In 2010, he opened his own place, Bar Agricole, with Eric Johnson. It’s true to San Francisco’s culinary roots, with a menu that changes daily and locally sourced, organic ingredients. The beverages remain classic and delicious.
What to Drink: ‘Ti Punch (rhum agricole, cane syrup, lime zest)
The energy level of this very busy Mission District Italian restaurant is lifted by its excellent bar. And then there are its craft drinks, which lift everybody’s spirits. Tuesday is cioppino night, when Beretta offers the traditional Mediterranean seafood stew, and I highly recommend it.
Doug “Bix” Biederbeck founded this beautiful jazz club, which sits tucked away in a alley not far from the Transamerica Pyramid, back in 1988. It’s one of the city’s most elegant rooms, featuring high ceilings and anchored by a long bar. The bartenders tend to shake most of their orders, but with the live music and a Manhattan in hand, you could not pick a better setting.
What to Drink: Bix Perfect Manhattan (Templeton Rye Whiskey, Dolin Dry Vermouth, Carpano Antica Formula Vermouth, Angostura Bitters)
Every city needs a modern speakeasy, and San Francisco’s is Bourbon & Branch. It opened in 2006, with Todd Smith and a wicked crew running the show. It quickly became a mixological destination attracting travelers from across the globe who love its traditional elixirs and impressive liquor collection. Be sure to make a reservation, and be sure to behave!
What to Drink: Revolver (bourbon, Tia Maria, bitters)
According to legend, Irish Coffee was brought from Shannon Airport in Ireland to this Fisherman’s Wharf joint in 1952 by travel writer Stanton Delaplane. Enjoy at least a couple steaming mugs of this Gaelic treat while admiring the beautiful Bay. Despite serving about 2,000 coffees a day, this place makes them consistently great.
What to Drink: Irish Coffee (Tullamore Dew Irish Whiskey, coffee, sugar, cream)
The Comstock Saloon’s location (pictured above) has housed a bar since 1907, and a few years ago, Jeff Hollinger and Jonny Raglin of Absinthe Brasserie & Bar fame took it over. There’s now live music nightly, with classic cocktails, high-end whiskey and delicious food.
What to Drink: Boot glass of Four Roses Bourbon and a cold mug of Anchor Steam Beer
One of San Francisco’s oldest continuously operating drinking establishments, Elixir dates back to at least 1858. The friendly neighborhood watering hole is now owned by Liquor.com advisory board member H. Joseph Ehrmann. While there’s always a creative list of drinks, I like trying one of the interesting beer choices or one of the many whiskies.
What to Drink: An Anchor Breckle’s Brown Ale and a dram of Bruichladdich The Laddie Ten Single Malt Scotch Whisky
Brilliant chef David Bazigram heads up this iconic restaurant on—where else?—the fifth floor of the Hotel Palomar. And Brian Means runs its venerable bar program, which boasts one of San Francisco’s best single malt Scotch collections. I usually enjoy a classic, like a Martini, but Means also has many creative original recipes. (Full disclosure: I work for Kimpton, which owns the hotel, and have consulted on this bar in the past.)
What to Drink: Dram at Mount Tam (St. George Terroir Gin, kombu-infused vermouth, kale cordial, celery bitters, togarashi)
This lively bar is headed up by the extremely talented Kevin Diedrich. Jasper’s is known for its Negronis on tap, plus its array of beers and other tipples. (I am a bit biased, since Jasper’s is in a Kimpton hotel, but it truly is one of my favorite spots.)
Looking for where the chefs and bartenders hang out? Then head to Nopa, which is always busy and serves food till 1AM every day. Neyah White ran the bar when it first opened, and now Yanni Kehagiaras is in charge. The elixirs are always creative, and there are also quality beers and wines. It is a must-stop on any mixology tour.
What to Drink:Guillotine (Del Maguey Vida Mezcal, Cynar, Dolin Dry Vermouth)
If you’re in the mood for a bowl of punch, perfectly mixed cocktails or an excellent whiskey selection, then search no further than Rickhouse. Located in the Financial District, the bar was originally led by the talented Erick Castro and continues to provide a vibrant and lively setting for imbibing.
What to Drink: Kentucky Buck (Bulleit Bourbon, lemon, strawberry, bitters, ginger beer)
Rye is a fun and energetic modern-day saloon. The bartenders are quick, make a mean cocktail and are always friendly and engaging. Owners Greg Lindgren and Jon Gasparini are world travelers, but I think their hearts lie in Italy—and their incredible collection of amaros is proof.
What to Drink: The special cocktail of the day
If anyone tells you that a busy bar cannot put out quality drinks quickly, direct them to The Slanted Door, where Erik Adkins will show them how wrong they are. A world-class menu of spirits, beers and wine complement chef Charles Phan’s famous Vietnamese dishes.
What to Drink: Hotel Nacional (Banks Rum, lime, house apricot brandy, Small Hand Foods Pineapple Gum Syrup, bitters)
The Bay Area was, of course, the site of the first Trader Vic’s, so it’s only fitting that it’s now home to Martin Cate’s Smuggler’s Cove. The tiki paradise stocks more than 400 rums and is manned by some of the region’s top bartenders, including Marco Dionysos and Steve Liles.
What to Drink: Dead Reckoning (aged Demerara rum, tawny port, vanilla-infused cognac, pineapple, lemon, maple syrup, Angostura Bitters)
From the ever-creative Bon Vivants crew—Scott Baird, Josh Harris and Jason Henton—comes this energetic new watering hole. The cocktail list is impressive and well-chosen (it even looks like a Pantone color palette). And the kitchen doesn’t disappoint: Try the Trick Dog, a burger in the shape of a hot dog.
What to Drink: The Lion Heart (The Black Grouse Scotch Whisky, mango, lemon, pink peppercorn)
This is truly Mecca for tequila lovers and is where the famous Tommy’s Margarita, made with fresh lime juice and agave nectar, was created. It’s also where I developed a real passion for the liquor, which changed my life. It opened in 1965 and is now run by Julio Bermejo, Tommy’s son. He carries one of the best selections of tequila available, including bottlings no longer produced.
What to Drink: Tommy’s Margarita (Partida Reposado Tequila, fresh lime juice, agave syrup)
Looking for more great watering holes? Check out our bar guide for the best bars in the world.
Jacques Bezuidenhout is a national cocktail and tequila ambassador for Partida Tequila and the master mixologist for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. He is also a Liquor.com advisory board member.